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After Effects CS4: Apprentice's Guide to Key Features is a series of guided tours with Chris and Trish Meyer. It is designed as a gentle introduction to some of the major features of After Effects CS4. This quick–start course is for beginners who already know how to animate, users who are not familiar with the latest version, or those who need to get up to speed with advanced tools. Chris and Trish cover features such as text animators, shape layers, expressions, and motion tracking. These guided tours are also included with the second edition of Chris and Trish Meyer's book, After Effects Apprentice (Focal Press).
To learn the basics of animating in After Effects CS4, check out After Effects CS4 Getting Started with Chad Perkins in the lynda.com Online Training Library®. To go deeper, see Chad's After Effects CS4 Essential Training. To get an overview of the new features in After Effects CS4, watch After Effects CS4 New Creative Techniques with Chris and Trish Meyer.
To purchase After Effects Apprentice—the book—go to www.amazon.com.
- Understanding 3D Axis Arrows and Camera Tools
- Working with Text Essentials and Animators
- Using Tracker controls
Skill Level Intermediate
After you have created a composition in After Effects, the process of outputting to a file is known as rendering and we are going to discuss the After Effects Render Queue in this movie. To render a composition, either select it in the Project panel or bring it its tab forward in either the Timeline or Composition panels and select Composition > Add to Render Queue. The shortcut is Command+M on Mac or Ctrl+M on Windows. The Render Queue by default docks into the Timeline panel. You can go ahead and dock it into the Composition panel or some people will prefer to undock it and make it its own floating window. But we will keep it in the Timeline for now.
By default After Effects will create a file name based on the composition's name. You can change this name by clicking on the Output To text, which will open up a normal output dialog depending on your operating system, and you can go ahead and rename it such as map output and save it where you want on your drive. You can also have After Effects ask you for a name every time you add a composition to the Render Queue. To do that, go under Preferences > Output and disable Use Default Filename and Folder.
When After Effects renders a file it's actually performing two steps internally. The first step is that it takes all the information for a given frame and renders it to an internal file or internal buffer and it uses the settings inside the Render Settings dialog to decide how to render that frame. After the frame has been rendered, After Effects then looks at the output module to decide how to save that file to disk, what file format to use, what codec to use, etcetera. So let's go ahead and look at the settings for both of those. You can create a series of templates for both Render Settings and for the output module in After Effects.
And we will discuss that more here in a minute. To see what templates are available, click on the arrow next to Render Settings and you will get a list of the current templates. Before you render you can select a different template, for example DV Settings. If you would like to choose a different template to be your default template next time you render, first hold down Command on Mac or Ctrl on Windows, then click on this arrow and pick a new template and now that will be your new default template for Render Settings or for the output module.
To edit the Render Settings just click on the name of the template. The Render Settings dialog has a lot of switches. Most of them give you an opportunity to override settings that are already in your composition. Now the first two are Quality and Resolution. In almost all cases you want to go ahead and leave those at the defaults. So Best Quality and Full Resolution. The only time you would set those to anything else is if you are trying to create a really fast low-resolution proof. Usually you want After Effects working at the Best Quality all the time. After Effects has the ability to cache frames that you have already previewed to disk, you can go ahead and use that disk cache during the render if you like.
After Effects also has an accelerated OpenGL Renderer, we tend to leave this off and use the Full Quality software renderer. Some other switches that may be of interest to you include the Effects switch. If you are the type of person who temporarily turns off an effect just to speed up rendering and you might have forgotten to turn it back on when you did go to Render, you can go ahead and change the Effect pop-up to all on. Again if you need to do a high-speed render you might set it to all off. We tend to leave it at current settings. Color Depth, quite often when we are working on a project we will use the Project Settings of 8-bits per channel which is of reasonable quality and renders faster but when you do your final render and you are trying to get that last bit of extra quality out of it you might want to up this to 16-bits per channel, 32-bits per channel is a special floating point mode and it can change how some images look, if you are going to use floating point, you really should be working in this mode all the way throughout your project and not set it just at the render stage because it may alter how some things look.
Frame Blending and Motion Blur are some of the effects, you may be turning them off temporarily just to work faster but then you might want to turn them on when it comes time to actually render. Same thing for Motion Blur. Field Rendering is very important. Some video formats do have interlacing or fields in it to get smoother motion. DV for example, defaults to Lower Field First. If you are doing something that's progressive scan such as output for the web or a film rate stuff or HD you want to turn the Fill Renderer off. If you are rendering to a Hi-def format with fields such as HDV, you want to pick Upper Field First and something other NTSC and PAL professional formats also maybe lower or upper depending upon the card that you are using.
3:2 Pulldown refers to a special trick where you may be working on a composition beside a film like rate, like 23.976 frames per seconds, but you need to layoff a tape that actually had a video rate of 29.97 frames a second. To do that you set your field order, DV is Lower Field First and enable 3:2 Pulldown. This will then spread out the rendered frames across all the video fields to get the final frame rate that you need but still contain that film like motion. These different characters indicate different bases of the pulldown, this really only applies if you are trying to match back to a film edit, if you are just doing a video work, pick the first one they are all the same.
Time span is particularly important. A lot of the After Effects templates default to Work Area Only and you may preview just a small part of your composition that you are working on. However, quite often when you render you want to render the entire length of the composition. So you want to pay particular attention to this pop-up and maybe even create some templates for yourself that uses that as the default. If you want to render a very specific area of your composition you can select Custom here or click on this Custom button and enter the exact range you want. For example you might want to start your render at 2 seconds and you might want to render just say 3 seconds of your composition. After Effects will then automatically fill in the numbers that you need to make that happen.
When you are done, click OK. Once After Effects has used your Render Settings to render out each individual frame of your composition, then it has to know how to save it to disk. That's where the Output Module comes in. Now once again you have a large number of templates you can choose from, we will go ahead and pick one of the NTSC templates for now. Just as with Render Settings, hold down Command or Ctrl and select a new template to go ahead and make that your new render default. For example, if you are doing live DV work you may pick DV as being your default template and then if you want to edit the Output Module click on the text for the template's name.
The most important choice is what format you want to save the file to. QuickTime movie is very common, if you are creating content for the web you may pick FLV, another common interchange is to go ahead and pick an Individual File Sequence for example, PNG sequences are very popular for doing high quality renders you can hand off to almost anybody. After you have chosen a format you then want to make sure you click on the Format Options, the buttons hiding off here to the side. Here is where you can set up additional parameters about your render. For example, if instead of rendering to DV you want to go ahead and render to the Animation codec, you want to make sure you drag your quality all the way to Best, for it to be a lossless render.
After you have chosen your format then you need to worry about what color information you need to render that file. Just the RGB Color Channels, just the Alpha Channel or Transparency or a combination of RGB + Alpha. Not all codecs support RGB + Alpha. For example videotape does not have an Alpha Channel. So if you have chosen DV, something specific to like an AJA or a Black Magic card, you will not be able to pick this option. If you are picking something you want to hand off to an editor later on, that they are supposed to composite over the video edit, then you do an RGB+Alpha so that they will have the Transparency information.
After you have chosen that you will see that this pop up has changed to Milliona of Colors+. That means it's going to be 8-bit quality, millions of colors and the + means there is an Alpha Channel. Some other formats such as a PNG sequence involves trillions of colors, 16-bits per channel while some other high end formats like Open EXR will even allow you to save floating point images. If you are saving off a channel you need to decide how the Alpha is going to be matted on to the color information. After Effects defaults to Premultiplied, which means some of the background color is mixed in to the edges. In reality, most of the time we prefer to have a Straight Alpha channel. It's a higher quality format, it fills out the color channels beyond the edges of the Alpha Channel to make sure you get a nice, clean matte at the end and the editing systems like Final Cut Pro etcetera expect a Straight Alpha channel.
Here are also some additional what are known as post render actions, such as whether or not you want to embed the project file into your rendered movie, whether or not you want to save additional metadata that might have come from your camera with your rendered movie, and whether or not you want to import the rendered file back in After Effects, etcetera. There are two other interesting parts of the Output Module that make it very, very flexible. The Stretch and the Crop. Stretch gives you the ability to rescale the file. For example, if you wanted to make a smaller web version of this file you may go ahead and enter a smaller frame size, which is only 240 pixels wide. One important gotcha though is that if you have Field Rendered your final file, you never ever, ever, ever want to change the height. This will damage the fields that you have rendered. So you only want to change the height when you have done a progressive scan renderer and have no fields.
Because I have gone ahead and set this to Lower Field First, I am going to put that back up to my 480 pixels high. But something that does come in handy, let's say you need to create an anamorphic wide screen version of this. that's normally 720 pixels wide rather than the square pixels comp was using, I can go ahead and do that right here in the Stretch module. The Crop module comes in handy if you need to crop off areas. For example, if you want to crop areas outside your action safe to create a nice web version or if you need to go between the formats. For example in NTSC DV is only 480 lines tall but D1, the professional video format is 486 lines tall. You enter positive numbers to crop off pixels or negative numbers to pad or to add pixels on.
Again, if you are interlacing or Field Rendering, you really need to pay attention on what you are doing. Fields always come in pairs. So if you have field rendered information you want to enter only even numbers in the top and bottom values. If I want to pad 480 lines out to 486 I will put -4, two pairs of lines at the top and -2 one pair of lines at the bottom and now I have got 486 line height and nice D1 output.
Don't forget the audio, a lot of templates in After Effects have the audio output turned off, but if you are relying off the tape as audio you want to go ahead and pick the right sample rate. Professional video formats such as professional DV and D1 all use 48K as the audio sample rate. Consumer DV uses 32K. So again it depends on where you are going with this. 16-bit stereo is the most common audio format option as well. I will click OK. Now one of the wonderful things about the Render Queue in After Effects is that after it has rendered a frame it can go ahead and write that same frame to disk multiple times to different formats. So in this case, if I want to create a normal video output but say also wanted to create a web video output from the same file, I go ahead and click on + to add a new output module and then go ahead and change its settings.
For example, I might pick FLV, which is a common web video format. In this case since I have not chosen FLV before in this computer, After Effects will automatically open the Format Options for FLV for me, where I get to do things such as whether or not I need an Alpha Channel saved with my rendered file. After I have done that After Effects will remember those settings and if I need to change them just click on Format Options and you will get the same dialog again. Give the file its own name such as map web version and now I can go ahead and save multiple files to disk from one render in After Effects. That's a big time savings. If I want to double check my work I can just twirl down next to Render Settings or Output Module and double check all my settings. The really nice thing about the Output Module is even after I have finished rendering it will remember the file path of where I saved this on disk. So I can find it after I have rendered it. Very nice. If I have changed either the Render Settings or the Output Module, I can go ahead and save those settings to make it easy to use them later on. I will just go ahead and click on the arrow next to them and choose Make Template. This will open up a Templates dialog, where I can go ahead and give a name to my new settings such as DV special render settings.
I can go ahead and edit it further if I want to. In the same dialog, I can also pick what I want to be my defaults for movie, defaults for rendering out a single frame, etcetera. I have got the same options for the Output Modules, or again I can say Make Template, give it a new name, DV web special, edit it if I need to, change my defaults if I need to. In addition to be able to open up the Template dialog from the Render Queue you can also do it underneath the Edit Settings.
Edit > Templates and that will get you to the same place where you can go ahead and change your defaults or create new templates. Click OK, you can go ahead and queue up several compositions to render. For example, I can just drag in almost straight into the Render Queue, give it a name such as display render, click OK and After Effects will render all of these as a batch. You can go ahead and walk off somewhere else and do some other work while After Effects works for your. When you are ready to go, click the Render button. If you need to pause the render for any reason, click on the Pause button. If you want to stop a render, there is a really nice hidden trick inside After Effects. If you hold down the Option key on the Mac or Alt key on Windows and click on Stop, it will go ahead and create a duplicate of the composition that you stopped with all of your same render settings including your own file.
This is very important because it allows you to re-render with the exact same settings. Otherwise After Effects will create the new entry in the Render Queue that only has the remaining portion of your render not the entire length. Quite often you want to re-render the entire movie. So remember Option or Alt+Stop allows you to go ahead and re- render the whole thing over from scratch. While After Effects is rendering, you will get to see some important information such as what frame and what field is it on while it is rendering, how much time has elapsed. After it has done a few frames, so it will even give you an estimate how much time is remaining and if you are very curious to see exact what's going on in every frame you can go ahead and twirl down next to Current Render and it will give you exact details of what's going on at each frame as it is rendering those frames. And that's a quick overview of the Render Queue in After Effects. It's very flexible and very powerful and really makes it a lot easier when you need to render many variations of the same comp or render a bunch of different compositions all at the same time.